It’s very unlikely you can stand on a single paper cup without breaking it. The cup would either have to be extremely strong in it’s structure, or you would have to be extremely light!

However, you can stand on paper cups without breaking them if you spread out several cups and place a stiff piece of cardboard on top. How many cups you need will depend on the type of paper cup you use and the weight of the person standing on top. This is possible because the cardboard has spread the weight across all of the cups. This spreading of the weight is called weight distribution.

Look at the tower we built below – do you think it is possible? Read on to find out more.

What is weight distribution and how does it help you to stand on paper cups without breaking them?

Weight distribution is the spreading out of weight so the weight is not all in one area but spread across a wider area. In the case of the paper cups the weight of a person standing on one cup is going to squish the cup because the weight of the person is too much for the structure of one cup to handle. However, when a few cups are used, and a stiff piece of cardboard placed on top, then the weight of the person is spread across the whole piece of cardboard, not just directly under their feet. The piece of cardboard then transfers the weight to all the paper cups, so each paper cup is taking only part of the total weight. The more paper cups, the less weight each cup has to take.

What do I need to use to spread the weight across the paper cups?

1. Paper cups

We just used regular paper cups, not fancy coffee cups

2. A stiff piece of cardboard

Cardboard works well, and it is something easy to find in the house, however you could use anything that is safe to use, like a thin piece of plywood. The cardboard needs to be stiff so the weight can spread through it to the other paper cups. If the cardboard is too thin then the cardboard will bend and not spread the weight across to the other paper cups. If you are not sure if it is stiff enough try it out and see! You will see in our pictures that our cardboard wasn’t anything special, but had amazing results!

SAFETY ALERT! Consider safety before starting this activity. Falls are likely, especially as the height increases. Make sure you are happy that the surface is soft but level and supportive, and the surrounding area is free of sharp objects, such as table corners. It may be helpful to have another person to help with stepping safely on and off the tower and balancing (encourages teamwork too!). As the height increases, a small step may be helpful.

Decide how many cups you want to start with as your base.

It will depend on your weight, your confidence and willingness to take risks, as well as the number of spare paper cups! We only started with 25 and we’d already destroyed one. We started with 16 cups. Think about how you are going to lay them out. We did ours in a square.

Child standing on 16 paper cups
100 pounds/45 kg – 16 cups – easy!

Easy! We were feeling so confident we put the rest of the cups down to make a rectangle of 24, and two children stepped on. Over 200 pounds (90 kg)! But check out the picture – was the weight distributed over 24 cups? I think it was max 22, maybe fewer.

Next we moved on to adding layers. Once we got more confident we went back to the single layer with fewer cups. We needed to have fewer cups on each level to be able to go higher as, but this time, we only had 23 cups left.

So did we manage our tower? We sure did! 9 cups on the bottom, 8 cups on the middle and 6 on the top. We didn’t have any more cups to try higher.

Have a look at our video montage of our afternoon. We had a lot of fun!

Standing on paper cups is a fun activity but where is weight distribution used in real life?

Weight distribution is part of every day life. From the way we move, stand, walk, and carry objects to the way cars and planes operate and homes and buildings stand up. Vehicles towing significant weight, like a caravan, is one aspect of everyday life where weight distribution is especially important.

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